mon 16/05/2022

Film: Crude | reviews, news & interviews

Film: Crude

Film: Crude

Slick of the week: oil gets a bad rap in Crude

Far from being the premature biopic of Frankie Boyle that its title might suggest, Crude is the latest and subtlest in a run of environmentally concerned documentaries. To stand out in this newly lucrative genre, you must adopt an original tack: the celebrity-fronted lecture has been done (An Inconvenient Truth), as too has the thriller (The Cove) and the prankster comedy (the Yes Men films). So anyone for the straight-shooting, no bells-and-whistles approach - “Just the facts, ma’am” as Dragnet’s Joe Friday would have put it?

The back-to-basics angle proves surprisingly refreshing in Crude, which doesn’t even have a voiceover, let alone any fancy on-screen graphics. This speaks volumes about the confidence of the film’s director, Joe Berlinger, in his material. He must have looked over the footage he had assembled from following a lawsuit pitting 30,000 Ecuadoreans against the US oil giant Chevron, and reasoned that the story was compelling enough to sell itself. If so, he was right.

In what has become known as the “Amazon Chernobyl” case, the plaintiffs argue that Texaco, which merged with Chevron in 2001, has conspired to contaminate the jungle of Ecuador, and poison its people, ever since it first built wells there in the early 1970s. (In a chilling excerpt, the narrator of a 1970 promotional film boasted that Texaco is “bringing muscles and machines to a territory untouched by civilisation”.)

One devastating testimony after another - parents whose children died before they could walk, medical staff confirming the widespread skin diseases, cancer sufferers and their families weeping over woes heaped upon woes - creates in the viewer a cumulative anger that is only stoked by interjections from Sara McMillen, Chevron’s chief environmental scientist. McMillen claims coolly that there is “absolutely no evidence that there’s an increase in cancer death rates” resulting from water pollution in Ecuador. What one wouldn’t give for an Erin Brockovich moment right there and then, with McMillen invited to gulp down the contents of a tall glass scooped straight from the Aguarico River. But Berlinger (who proved similarly restrained under vastly different circumstances in his last documentary, Metallica: Some Kind of Monster) is not playing that game; he knows that sometimes you need only leave the camera running to give a person enough rope.

Chevron’s main defence is that, since Texaco left Ecuador in the hands of the country’s own PetroEcuador in 1992, it cannot be held responsible for the transparent breaches of environmental safety which have occurred in the intervening years. What the film demonstrates is that the handover itself hinged on a clean-up operation by Texaco which the plaintiffs claim was never properly executed. The picture has its colourful protagonists, such as the plaintiffs’ attorney, Pablo Fajardo, and the hugely charismatic consulting attorney Steven Donziger. It even features the celebrity couple without whom no environmental concern is properly ratified—namely the co-founders of the Rainforest Foundation, Trudie Styler and her little-known husband, Sting. Styler simpers to camera in a white headscarf, like Audrey Hepburn only less so, while Sting bashes out “Message in a Bottle.” Which is nice.

But it must be proof of the film’s clarity and power, and the size of the injustice it exposes, that any objection to celebrity campaigners is dwarfed many times over by sympathy for the Ecuadoreans’ struggle. And by the desire to add your own support.

  • Crude is on general release.

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